June is National Safety Month in the United States.
In recognition of that, we wanted to introduce a talented member of our team and her critical behind-the-scenes role -- Global Safety & Quality Manager Barbara LaBarge.
Q: What is your job at Fluence?
I’m the Global Safety & Quality Manager, reporting to the Chief Operating Officer. I lead a team of six people overseeing the company’s worldwide safety and quality operations.
Safety is a big concern for any company in the power sector as you have to deal with the inherent dangers of managing electricity. Fluence is uniquely focused on reducing that inherent danger. We prioritize identifying risks, developing ways to mitigate them, and implementing those precautions to continually improve safety for ourselves, our customers, our communities, and the industry.
Q: How did you get into the safety and quality sector and what were some of your previous roles?
I’ve been in some sort of quality and safety role since I was 19, but it was definitely not the career I planned to pursue.
I joined the Navy when I was 18 to become a rescue swimmer. I passed the rescue swimmer school tests and was accepted as the only woman in a class with 30 men. Unfortunately, toward the end of training, I hurt my back and had to withdraw, which was devastating. I thought I was invincible. Partly because of that experience, I became interested in complacency and the human factor in safety issues and injuries. I ended up moving into a different career in the military in aviation safety & quality, doing integrity checks, naval air and logbook audits, and testing databases to make sure they met requirements.
I love to understand safety and quality requirements – what they are, why they’re in place, how we can meet them, and who’s responsible for doing so. Because I love the organizational and problem-solving elements of this field, I was able to advance pretty quickly and decided to move over to NASA where I did aviation audits and integrity checks and helped write the mishap plan for the International Space Station and other projects. We’re actually using some of the safety & quality best practices used at NASA in the Fluence labs. [Note: Barbara received several awards and a medal from NASA for her safety and quality work.]
Q: What’s different about safety & quality at Fluence?
Quality and safety are embedded in Fluence’s psyche and in every function in the organization, from administrative assistants to sales, to operations and IT. Safety is never, ever put on the backburner.
When I first joined Fluence, I worried that people would say they put safety first but not actually do it, or that I would have to convince leadership of safety’s importance. But it was immediately apparent that Fluence truly lives by the idea of “safety first,” and that the entire leadership team was committed to making safety an integral part of the business. My boss, our COO, John Zahurancik, has been a huge advocate for that.
I also found that everyone was transparent and open and willing to help me figure out where we needed to focus our efforts, which surprised me. At a lot of organizations, safety is viewed as a nuisance or something to be afraid of – people think they’re going to get in trouble or that they have to hide things that aren’t perfect. No matter how good we are, there’s always room for improvement, and Fluence actively seeks out areas where we can raise the bar. Fluence is a leader in the energy storage industry and we see a responsibility to be a leader in safety.
Q: How have you helped build that culture of safety at Fluence?
One of my main goals – and something I love doing – has been to educate every Fluence employee about the importance of safety and help them embrace their role in creating that safety culture. Everyone has the authority and the obligation to stop work if they notice a potential safety or quality issue. If something doesn’t look right, we would rather stop the work and check it out than move forward and potentially have an accident. We actually celebrate stop work successes at monthly safety meetings because every one of those stop works represents a potentially more serious incident that’s been avoided.
When it comes to safety and quality, you have to be proactive. The absolute worst thing that can happen is for someone to say after an incident, “I saw that coming.” So we’ve incorporated safety training into our onboarding process for all new hires, where two of the key takeaways are “zero retaliation” and “obligation to stop work if you see a safety issue.” I’ve tried hard to make it very clear that the safety & quality team is here to help and guide people and celebrate success, not to punish anyone, and that safety is part of everyone’s job.
Q: What are you working on these days?
COVID-19-related safety issues obviously take a lot of my time these days. That includes ensuring teams working on critical infrastructure projects around the world have the tools they need to stay safe (e.g. personal protective equipment, temperature checks, social distancing, etc.) and are complying with local restrictions. Safety isn’t just physical, it also encompasses mental health and stress levels, so we’ve been doing things like virtual yoga classes, and lunches and “sanity checks” to talk on a personal level. I’m also leading what we’re calling the Global Business Continuity team to make sure all employees have the resources they need to work remotely and to imagine what a safe return to “normal” should look like once restrictions start to lift.
Beyond immediate coronavirus-related safety issues, I’m also focused on expanding our compliance with the latest ISO certifications to all Fluence offices globally, including ISO 45001 (occupational safety), ISO 9001 (quality), and 14001 (environmental). This company-wide initiative is taking a lot of work across all teams, including internal and external audits and creating preventative and corrective action plans, but there was no hesitation at all from leadership, which I think speaks to the emphasis Fluence places on safety and quality.
For National Safety Month, we’re doing a series of weekly lunch trainings on different safety topics, including home, environmental, work and COVID-19 safety. We’re also sending out weekly emails with safety tips and kudos to employees who have gone above and beyond prioritizing safety & quality.
Q: What’s your least favorite part of your job? Favorite part?
My least favorite is getting interviewed! My favorite part is problem-solving, doing root cause analysis to figure out what happened if something goes wrong, and preventive planning to avoid incidents in the future. My second-favorite part is figuring out how to teach people about safety & quality in a way that engages them.
Q: Any parting thoughts?
I believe 99.9% of safety incidents can be avoided. Getting people excited about safety, teaching them how to identify hazards and think critically about safety for themselves and others is my number one mission. One of the things we say about ourselves at Fluence is that we’re nerdishly in love with what we do. That is 100% true for me. I am passionate about my work. If there’s one thing I want people at Fluence – and other companies – to know, it’s that safety is a core part of your job, not the responsibility of just one department, and it’s up to all of us to keep each other safe.